Saturday, August 6, 2011

Are Puppies "Moldable?"

My sweet, innocent, little Pupperface.
Long before they learn to perfect the art of defying physics in your living room, puppies fine-tune their ability to manipulate and swindle the human race. Face it, these four legged beasts with their tiny little needle teeth can be downright evil. But they are also so irresistibly cute!!! Just the thought of a bunch of puppies with their puppy breath (you either love it or hate it) and their roly poly little tummies just makes me want to squeal with happiness. I openly admit that I'm not ever going to be the first person to volunteer to hold your human infant but if you have a puppy around me, I'm on top of it things. In fact, I may have to advocate for a Puppy Room at my work to help reduce the job stress. Who wouldn't benefit from a room with dozens and dozens of puppies ripe for cuddling? Ok, maybe the allergy sufferers wouldn't be quite as thrilled...

And here I am again, brainwashed by the mere thought of puppies! We all know why we like them, but it often takes living with one again to remember why they are actually little evil-doers in disguise. Do you really want a puppy or would something a little less terroristic be a better idea? It really depends on the person, the situation, and of course, the puppy. So, read on to get a general idea of what to think about before you allow the persuasive powers of a puppy to abruptly make up your mind for you. Acquiring a living creature on pure impulse almost never turns out well!

One of the most common reasons that people choose a puppy over an older dog is that they feel a puppy is going to be easier to "mold" into the adult dog that they want. There is some truth to that line of thinking. Puppies go through a lot of developmental changes that you can definitely have major influence over and this can go a very long way to ending up with a well adjusted dog. However, most people do not take many (or any!) of the steps involved in making those positive influences in their puppy's life. Socialization and consistent training are usually the areas where people slack off the most. And by "socialization" I don't mean having your dog occasionally play with the neighbor's dogs or raising your dog around an older dog that you have. Proper socialization involves setting a goal for your dog to meet 100 different new dogs before the first four months of its life. It also involves exposing your dog to as many positive experiences in new places and with new and different types of people as you can. Improper socialization can lead to a dog who becomes fearful or reactive to different types of people, places, or things.

Personally, I prefer my dogs with their spirits left intact.
Another mistake that I see people make when raising their puppies is focusing too much on punishment. This is a quick way to take an otherwise happy-go-lucky, confident animal and turn it into one that is insecure and unwilling to embrace new things. It is much harder to train a dog who has gotten used to getting in trouble when he gets things wrong than it is to train one who has gotten used to being rewarded for getting things right. Focus on what you want and rewarding that and leave the anger and frustration behind when your puppy does something wrong. And for the love of all things holy, don't get so wrapped up trying to be "alpha" that you forget how dogs actually think about things. Fido didn't chew on your shoe because he wants to take over the world, I promise. A good leader (or "alpha," if you are dead set on using that terminology) puts their shoes away and doesn't have to worry about this. Dogs were bred to naturally look to humans for guidance and they will if you are clear in your communication to them (this is not just my opinion, it is a scientific fact). You are their leader from the start and a sure-fire way to ruin this and create an ongoing circle of mis-communication is to start browbeating your dog into your human idea of "submission." That's where aggressive dogs come from; I've been there and it's a sad place where there are not enough happy endings. If you build a trusting relationship and actually take the time to teach your dog how to behave appropriately, he is going to listen to you. No, he's not going to be a robot that is perfectly obedient in all situations (if you want that, you should get a robot), but he will continue to seek YOU for guidance rather than feel like he has to communicate in extreme ways such as snapping or growling. Personally, I prefer my dogs with their spirits intact. They trust me and listen to me. They know that they don't have to bite or be aggressive in order to communicate with me. And in situations when they're being more hard-headed, I have the education and experience to know exactly what's going on. Because of this, I know how to "fix" the problem. There will be more on that particular subject in future blogs, I'm sure.
Puppies can come from fosters too! Obi's foster saved
him from possibly being euthanized due to having one
blind eye. I am thankful to his foster mom and the
friend who led us to her every day!

My point is that yes, you do have a great amount of influence over how a puppy grows up, but you still don't know what exactly what you're going to get at the end of the ordeal, especially if you can't accommodate for what is required to prevent a puppy from developing behavioral issues. Raising a puppy properly involves a lot of time, patience, and education that many people just don't have. The education can be acquired but time and other resources are a little harder to manipulate. And even if all of those things fall into place, your puppy is going to have its own distinct personality that will present its own set of challenges for you. There is no way around that; we call it Nature vs. Nuture.

The alternative is to adopt an adult dog that has already grown into its personality. This is not a perfectly predictable situation either, but if you adopt from a reputable shelter or rescue, you can come out with the deal of a lifetime. When you're looking for something very specific as far as personality goes, I'd suggest finding a dog that is being fostered in someone's home. Foster dog parents take care of the dog as if it was their own until a new permanent family comes along, making space for another foster dog to be taken in. A dog's foster parent is going to have a very good idea about how the dog behaves in a typical home situation.

Another thing to consider is that adult dogs can be trained just as well as puppies. Dogs can learn new "tricks" at any age. Unfortunately, humans are a little tougher to train. Once they get an idea into their head of how things work it can be like pulling teeth to convince them otherwise. If a person comes into one of my classes thinking that their dog wants world domination, it can take the full six weeks or more to convince them that there are real reasons behind potty training problems or reactivity. Meanwhile, in that same amount of time the dog has usually learned half a dozen new behaviors that will help fix her issues if only the owner can just get over his own bad habits and hangups.

So, the answer to the subject of this blog is "Yes and No." You can have a huge impact on the type of dog your puppy becomes, but it just isn't in the cards of ethology for anyone or anything to be the one and only influence over another living creature. Furthermore, unless you become incredibly proactive about educating yourself on training and behavior, there are many ways in which your influence can unfortunately be detrimental to your pet. Communication is absolutely vital whether you have a new puppy or an older dog, and it doesn't happen without a solid understanding of how dogs think. Keep reading, learning, and asking why. As always, comments and questions are welcome. You may leave them here or send a quick email to: Also, don't forget to like the page on Facebook!


  1. I was a puppy. I got to snuggle a lot with Mom. It was fun. :) Now I am growed up, and I snuggle with mah hooman friends. :)

  2. Snuggling is the best! :D In my neck of the woods, it is prime snuggling weather right now too. :)